Arguments about the value of teaching grammar in schools and beyond have remained largely unchanged over the last 100 years.
- First, the value of dedicating valuable curriculum space to the study of something that research has shown to have little measurable impact on student competences and skills. In some schools, and for some teachers, this meant that grammar ended up being omitted entirely from classrooms.
- Second, the emphasis from some quarters on standards, correctness and a thinly disguised notion of linguistic policing has inevitably led to very narrow notions of what language study could look like in the classroom. This deficit view of grammar continues to have a strong hold in contemporary politics and educational policymaking, as recent changes to the English National Curriculum and Key Stage 2 testing arrangements have demonstrated. The following extract from a blog by Harry Mount published on The Telegraph website gives a flavour of this kind of attitude.
Without grammar you are back in the Stone Age, reduced to making the simplest of statements; or, by trying to make more complicated ones and not being able to do it, you write nonsense. Grammar doesn’t exclude; not knowing grammar does. Without good grammar, you don’t have full access to one of the great joys of happening to be born in this country – being able to read and write English.
Mount’s comments present a right-wing view of grammar teaching. They explicitly emphasize the notion of a correct way of speaking, and implicitly downplay nonstandard forms and varieties of English. They are typical of a prescriptive approach to language, emphasising rules and the importance of adhering to them. By contrast, a descriptive approach finds value in looking at varieties of use in all forms, and linking these to specific contexts, the motivations of different writers, readers, speakers and listeners and their purposes for wanting to communicate. As I will show in Chapters 2 and 3, these competing and polarised views remain at the centre of debates both for and against the explicit teaching of language in schools.
These positions have been translated into pedagogical viewpoints that have underpinned attitudes towards grammar and language work for many years. Nearly fifty years ago, Michael Halliday drew a distinction between what he called three primary aims of grammar teaching: productive, descriptive and prescriptive (Halliday 1967: 83).
A productive aim focuses on the development of students’ functional skills related to speaking, reading and writing. A descriptive aim is more content-driven, building students’ knowledge about the language levels of discourse, semantics, syntax, lexis, morphology and graphology in ways that allow them to describe different kinds of language use accurately and systematically, with due attention to the contexts in which communication takes place. The tension between the two aims in current practice is most clearly seen in the staggering difference in focus between GCSE English Language (largely productive aims) and A level English Language (largely descriptive aims). A third aim of prescriptivism, deeply entrenched in the values of writers like Harry Mount, has moved in and out of school culture with various changes of government, policy and wider societal values. As Halliday himself remarks, it exists as
linguistic table-manners…unlike [productive teaching] . . . [it] adds nothing to the pupil’s linguistic abilities; it makes his performance more socially acceptable.
(Halliday 1967: 83)